Starfield is one of the most anticipated games of the year, but also one we don’t know a lot about.
While we could expect Skyrim in space, a new post on the Xbox Wire (opens in new tab) by Starfield's lead artist Istvan Pely has noted how the game will have a “NASA-punk” design. To me, that means it won’t have the feel of a traditional high sci-fi game or series, such as Mass Effect, Star Wars or Star Trek, but will instead be more grounded in pseudo realism, aka hard sci-fi.
"Early on in this project when we were trying to establish the overall aesthetic of this game, we sort of coined the term 'NASA-Punk' to describe a sci-fi universe that's a little more grounded and relatable," explained Pely. "We wanted a very realistic take. You can draw a line from current-day space technology and extrapolate from there into the future so it's believable and relatable."
That means holograms, warp drives and lasers are likely replaced by head-up displays, advanced fusion engines and futuristic projectiles weapons. Think of this as Bethesda’s take on The Expanse.
And this is music to my ears. I loved Mass Effect and adore the Star Wars universe, but we’ve had plenty of games that rather casually skim over the rigours of physics and the challenges of life in the vacuum of space. Meanwhile, hard sci-fi leans into the challenges of interplanetary travel and how ships are likely to follow function over form (no one would describe The Expanse’s Rocinante as a beautiful ship, but it’s a far more realistic one than the U.S.S Enterprise.)
"What's really interesting is how much we all latched onto that concept," Starfield’s lead animator Rick Vicens added. "When you said NASA-Punk, the art team could instantly take those two words and make them work. It was just the perfect term for our art direction and keeping everyone in same flow and working with a consistent style. For me, it just clicked. At the start of the project, I think that term was critical for us."
How far Starfield will go with this isn’t clear. But the NASA-punk direction and the artwork we’ve seen so far promises ships that are flush with physical buttons rather than a mass of absurdly manipulatable holographic displays.
This aesthetic has been used to great success before with 2014's Alien: Isolation, which put players into the boots of Amanda Ripley on an expansive space station. That game channelled the analogue low-fi sci-fi of the original Alien movie, which presented a real sense of horror as there was no high-tech McGuffin to purge H. R. Giger's alien; instead there's more of a reliance on human ingenuity and DIY.
That’s not to say Starfield will have you wandering around with clunky motion trackers. But it should have a feel that’s notably different to recent sci-fi games; sure you’ll get to travel to some outer worlds, but Outer Worlds this ain’t.
The idea of blasting off into outer space in a ship that could actually be a future concept in the mind’s eye of a NASA engineer is properly interesting. And it would be a good palate cleanser for the near-magical concepts of artificial gravity plating and FLT drives that lack even a shred of science; the less said about spore drives the better.
Add all this into Skyrim-scale exploitation and ambition, and Starfield goes from an exciting game set to launch on November 11 into a title that could really shake up space-based sci-fi in the gaming world. Just a pity it’ll be an Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S and PC exclusive; sorry, PS5 fans.